Simple stories strike home

I’ve been involved with creating some small-scale storytelling projects for non-journalistic ends in the last few years. All of them have had two things in common – zero budget and, as a result, forced simplicity. If you have budget, good for you. Spend it wisely, and you have the luxury of options. But if times are tight, fear not. Simplicity can be your best friend. Simplicity means focus.

Once you figure out the true purpose of what you’re trying to communicate, the most direct route to that message is often the most effective. Take, for example, our recent promo video for Storyful. We wanted to communicate that there were great people behind what we do. Storyful is a journalism-as-a-service kind of business, we are largely b2b and thus don’t typically provide our staff with exposure via bylines, but they are the heartbeat of our organisation. Our business is inherently human.

We produced an in-house movie, scripted by myself and Mark, to highlight the human factor of Storyful. It was shot on my own gear – the same equipment that I used to film this short doco for the Red Cross back in 2010 – against a white wall in the breakout room. Canon 7d, Zoom H4n, and, quite literally, the shiny backside of a whiteboard as a reflector to even out the shadows cast by downlighters in the Storyful breakout room. We knew what we wanted, we had Ed Rice cut in some video from material used over the past two years, and hey presto:

Likewise, when we needed to post a job opening last week, we knew that we’d want something that would get traction pretty widely with the right readership, but which wouldn’t cost us anything, ideally. I wrote up the job description on a Google Doc and made it public.

The job posting has since had more than 3,600 views, and we have had nearly 200 responses – but it was also a fantastic bit of PR for us, due in large part to a little kicker at the end of the job posting:

Applications to Storyful’s Head of Content. Yes, their email address is omitted on purpose. Finding news is all about finding the right person to talk to. It starts …. now.
UPDATE: 4.30pm GMT: If you’re calling the office to ask for our Head of Content’s name, we’ll be asking for your name and why you can’t work Google. =)

Putting a little related challenge into the job posting got people chatting, and even though it was only a tiny barrier for anyone who was remotely qualified, it served to weed out the candidates. We didn’t need to run any paid-for ads, we didn’t need to promote the ad anywhere, the twist in the application process did the legwork for us. It’s a scaled-down version of what Pizza Hut are doing at SXSW, where they’re asking candidates to pitch themselves in 140 characters – only we didn’t have to pay to produce an animated YouTube video, or hire any space in the Hilton for the interviews. For us, in relative terms, the return on investment was just as good.

Irish website Broadsheet.ie picked it up instantly and ran it as a story in itself, and the ad even got some international attention:

Back when I was recording in Kenya for the Red Cross, I also did some training with a Kenya-based, but Irish-founded NGO called Moving Mountains. The goal was to teach the team how to tell their own video stories in a simple way using Kodak Zi8 cameras, and leave them with some good introductory videos for the project in Nairobi and around. The key barrier to break was that the team had to relax, allow their true personalities to come out and be a bit creative with how they illustrated themselves on video. It was a fun process, with the results in a playlist below. The key message that unifies all these examples is this: Don’t stress about production values or the equipment you have. Worry about the purpose of the content you’re creating, and the simplicity of your message. Get that right, and it’ll all work out fine.

 

A year after Kony2012, five non-profit wins

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March 5 marks the one-year anniversary of a film that blindsided everyone who has an interest in NGO communications, or how narratives emerge from developing countires – Kony2012. The video defied all logic for web videos. It dealt with a complex and obscure topic, lasted a half hour (most ecof the popular web videos are under a minute long) and had a heavy, moral message. I won’t go into the amazing story of Kony2012, there’ll be enough column inches written about it on Tuesday. But one passage from this excellent Observer piece stood out, describing a a report on the film’s impact, which concluded:

 “[T]he way in which charities communicate has to change in the wake of it”. It was, he said, a “game changer”, “for all of us to hear about it from our kids. That’s how I heard about it, from my teenage son, 48 hours in. I was like, ‘How come you have heard about a Kony video and I haven’t and it’s my job? And I haven’t ever heard you talk about Africa before.’

“They reached young people in a way no charity has been able to do before. They connected to people’s stories. It wasn’t snazzy or trendy. It was just good old-fashioned story-telling.”

Despite Kony2012, many NGOs are still trying to peddle the old press-release (and sometimes video) email to journalists, effectively begging for coverage, when it’s been demonstrated time and time again that you need to push the boat out to get cut-through. Kony2012 changed the game entirely. This video has more than 96 million views on YouTube. That’s unheard of, and it’s proof of concept that if you do something different and connect with people on a human level  your message takes on a life of its own.

So here, in no particular order, are my top five favourite comms projects from NGOs and non-profits, people who really thought differently about how to tell their story. Some are expensive and involved, others cheap and engaging. But all are game-changers in a way, and should serve as models for emulation.

1. Médecins Sans Frontieres – Premium Publications

MSF are consistently courageous with how they tell their stories, blending multimedia with that French bravado that serves them so well. The two books to the right, Writing on the Edge and The Photographer, don’t follow the usual formula, rather they are by-products of them. The Photographer is the story of a snapper who went to Afghanistan in 1986 to observe the work of a team of doctors. After the trip, he and two artists blended his work with a graphic novel describing the trip. The result is a wonderful, human narrative that tells a woven story which separate words & pictures cannot achieve.

Tom Craig’s ‘Writing on the Edge’ is another image-led collection with the photographer again as the constant. Craig was accompanied on a number of trips with MSF by his pick of great writers, AA Gill and Daniel Day-Lewis among them, resulting in an expensive, experimental and richly-produced book that is visually halting and riveting to read. Both are examples of how thought and freedom can create something that endures for a NGO’s brand. I bought copies of both – they’re stunning.

2. Wikileaks

OK, so it descended into farce, with Julian Assange holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy, after hosting a

Wikileaks

Russia Today chat show and being defended publicly by George Galloway, but as far as non-profit comms projects go, Wikileaks blew everything else out of the water. They acquired some phenomenal content and made it public in a very creative way, by drip-feeding it to the world and seeding it via a safety-in-numbers network of global media houses, who had the power to visualise and manipulate the data and make it come alive. Would you know about Anonymous or Lulzsec were it not for Wikileaks? Would the occupy protests have happened? Arguable points, but a watershed nonetheless.

3. Shave or Dye

A local one. This initiative from the Irish Cancer Society has raised more than €4.5million for the charity, by getting people to raise money by either shaving or dyeing their hair. It has it all. A macabre play on words in the title, a playful way to make light of one of the worst stigmas associated with cancer – hair loss – by co-opting the healthy into mimicking the worst effect of the illness, or making the hair they still have seem ridiculous. It is fun, and it has the backing of a national broadcaster. A superb, simple success.

4. Mapping @fieldproducer in Burkina Faso

When Neal Mann was between his jobs with Sky News and the Wall St Journal, he was drafted by Save the Children for a trip to Burkina Faso to cover a looming food crisis in the country. They approached me to help them document the trip in a new way. At the time, we were in the habit of using maps to contextualise stories at Storyful, so I suggested we do the same for Neal’s trip to Burkina.

While he pinged back pics and audio from BF, I got busy embedding and arranging them on the Google Map to make the journey come alive. The map ended up attracting 26,000 views, with one of Neal’s audioboo reports getting the same again after it was promoted on Audioboo’s front page.

The engagement was genuine, from fulsome praise to the debate it generated around Neal’s use of Instagram  in some of his reporting. But it was all unfiltered, unmediated, and in real time. Neal had the freedom to respond to users in real time, just as they watched him upload content items and spell out the context around what he was seeing. The trip, it was claimed, generated five times the traffic of a long-form piece from the Guardian from a similar trip to Mozambique.

It took a leap of faith from Save the Children, but it cost them little more than the airfare for a high-profile online newsmaker, and the gains in terms of engagement and understanding of the crisis were manifest.

View Burkina Faso Trip in a larger map

5. Kony 2012

One year, 96million views. Whatever your thoughts on how they went about it, it is a phenomenon, and it should redefine non-profit comms for the future. NGO folk still understand that they struggle to get beyond the ‘black babies’ or ‘eyes ‘n’ flies’ narratives, but this film blew through those stereotypes, for better or worse. It stands alone.

Journalism closes a door, brands open a window

via noodlepie on flickrI got involved in a tete-a-tete over the concept of journalists as entrepreneurs on Twitter on Wednesday. The essence of it was the question of whether or not journalists should stick to journalism, and not worry about the selling/entrepreneurial part of things. If they stick to journalism, the argument went, they will be better placed to maintain the quality of their work. I disagreed (you can read the whole thing here).

That discussion was about individual journos, selling their own wares, largely in the news sphere. We didn’t tackle the broader ‘grand repurposing’ of journalism. Marketeers have come to realise that rather than trying to convince journos to ‘print their stuff’, they’re going all in and hiring them to do what they do naturally, then piggybacking on it and basking in the reflected glory. They call it brand journalism. Bizarrely, it often offers journalists, photogs and filmmakers the freedom to do the stuff they’d desperately love to do. For money. I know.

This repurposed journalism, in which journalists are hired to create great content for magazines, websites and even TV channels conveniently  owned by brands, is on the rise. It’s the advertising world’s rising MO and an area in which smart companies are willing to invest heavily and build big, creating talented teams to turn out top-quality content.

They’re hiring, and hiring fast. (Net-a-Porter are hiring right now, so are Patagonia). Take Patagonia. They now have a team of ten journalists, developers, designers and an editor-in-chief creating their blogs, websites and tumblrs. It seems to be working.

From Digiday:

Patagonia does not rely on outside agencies for any of its marketing, another unique aspect of its approach. “By doing things ourselves, we are just removing the layers,” Boland [Bill Boland, Patagonia’s digital creative director], said.

“Proving ROI isn’t a big challenge,” he said. “Our biggest challenge is that we have more content than we could possibly publish, which makes it hard to figure out what gets in and what does not.”

The whole project, every fullstop and pixel, exudes ‘Patagionaness’. They even take counter-intuitive environmental stances against their own product from time to time. Damn hippies. Minor scuffles aside, it’s clear that Patagonia’s editorial team are advocates for the company and its philosophy – they speak the language of their customers, they are wholly into it, which is why the whole thing works, and why they have become magnets for relevant content.  And that’s crucial if brand journalism is to to be practical, and credible. Jez Frampton, CEO of Interbrand, spoke of the importance of that in the content marketing context. It’s essential that everything that emanates from a brand newsroom is in tune with that company’s ethos.

‘Every message from a brand is viewed in the context of that brand: its market position, personality, values, competitive stance etc.  In other words, it shapes the way we interpret the message, and in a world where our communication with brands is increasing exponentially, a clearly articulated and defined brand becomes even more important.’

Translation: If there’s a sniff of your team being false, or trying to be something you clearly don’t believe in, the reader will shred your credibility in a bloody marketing pogrom. The media houses with a strong brand and who understand their brand, are the ones that are surviving, and that’s not restricted to fashion houses or FMCG entities. The FT and the Economist are thriving. Al Jazeera is spreading like nits in a kindergarten. They are all well-defined brands. And then there’s Red Bull. Originally a fizzy drink made (so the urban myth goes) with the stimulating freshness of a bull-testicle extract, Red Bull is now a global media empire (which just happens to sell a beverage).

From Mashable:

‘Lately, every conference PowerPoint on the future of advertising or PR seems to mention Red Bull as a — if not the — shining example of a brand-turned-publisher, what every future-leaning agency encourages its clients to emulate.’

Red Bull has gone from emblazoning other people’s events with extreme soft-drink bunting, to running the events, ending at a point where it producing high-grade expeditionary documentaries, magazines and the rest off the back of their extreme lifestyle advicates and has become a global leader in content marketing. They sell drinks on the side. No-one would question the quality of the film, photography and interviews they produce. Their team are outstanding. The content they create is stunning.

‘It [the Red Bull behemoth] recently released a feature film, The Art of Flight. The movie cost a reported $2 million to make, but when it hit iTunes in 2011, it parked atop the charts for more than a week — bringing in $10 per download.’

Remember a time when brands used to pay for ads in the traditional media? Step through the looking glass into the Red Bull content pool. It’s a place where the traditional media can go to pay for professional content produced by people who once tried to sell you fizzy can of caffeinated cough mixture which they advertised in the traditional media. Dizzy? You should be, particularly if you work in the traditional media. Former advertisers selling you the content you once used to use to sell them advertising? It’s like someone invited you to dinner, got you drunk, and then stung you with the bill. Red Bull describe their content pool thus:

‘A one-stop gateway to our full media catalog: plug-and-play web clips, documentaries,news piecesphoto shoots, the latest interviews, and accompanying editorials. With over 50,000 photos and 5,000 videos, the Red Bull Content Pool is the finest dedicated global content source in existence for sports, culture, and lifestyle material.’

Red Bull are streets ahead of most brands looking to get into this game, and there’s a frantic game of catch-up being played.  Everyone wants in, but the road to creating a newsroom from scratch is daunting.. In a Harvard Business Review blog post, Newsweek/Daily Beast CEO Baba Shetty said brands need to be more like newsrooms:

For messages to be heard in 2020, brands will need to create an enormous amount of useful, appealing, and timely content. To get there, brands will have to leave behind organizations and thinking built solely around the campaign model, and instead adopt the defining characteristics of the real-time, data-driven newsroom — a model that’s prolific, agile and audience-centric.

That’s easy to say, but not easy to do. Agility and timeliness are particularly challenging, because it means your creative wordsmiths also need to be skilled at monitoring all the relevant incoming news and/or social media signals to find whatever it is they should be reacting to. Digiday provide a dose of reality.

Any publisher will tell you that operating a newsroom is an expensive, arduous task. It’s also incredibly difficult to do well, especially if it’s not your business.

Amen, brutha. (Sorry, SISTA). It’s tough. Say you’re a clothing retailer, your core competency is, well, clothing. Not editorial (exceptions aside). There’s an enormous skills gap. It’s a gap into which journalists should be leaping to make a buck. Some are – in the form of companies like /Newsroom and networks like Contently, springing up to fill the content gap. As newsrooms shut their doors, there are windows opening in the world of brand journalism. But journalists may be reluctant to break in. In fact, they may board up the holes. Why? More to follow.

Discontent in a world of content

Guinness’s October ‘cloud’ ad floated softly near many of the YouTube videos I’ve been watching lately. It’s a 30-second version of a TV ad which has been sliced down for the web. It normally appears with the option to click out after five seconds and go through to my chosen video (what YouTube call a TrueView in-stream ad). Like any of those ads, it has five seconds to hook me, five seconds to pique my curiosity before I can escape.

In those five seconds of mandatory viewing, there’s no reference to Guinness. We see a cloud moving over sea, its shadow moving onto a quay and then over a slightly confused chap under some girders, at which point, BAM, I’m bored and I’m definitely clicking out to see the video I came to YouTube for, and Guinness has had ZERO brand impact on me.

Granted, I’m a curious person, and because we work with YouTube it pays for me to understand how ads get served, so I’ve watched the ad through – but purely for that reason. It’s a nice ad, it’s a pretty ad. It’s been well-received as a creative puff piece in the advertising world, as you’d expect from one of the world’s strongest drink brands, (although unnamed critics have said it fails to link to the brand). But it hasn’t been thought through for YouTube. It’s a simple case of someone not understanding the platform. It’s the online equivalent of having 14-point font on a ten-foot billboard – it just doesn’t make sense.

And let’s be clear, this is not a case of where creating a ‘viral’ ad that, shareable for its own content alone (á la Dollar Shave Club), has missed the mark. Nor is it a case of understanding just the potential for reach of a platform (staying with Gillette, as we’re talking razors) but falling short. It’s a misunderstanding of the fact that content AND platform TOGETHER are far more than the sum of their parts. Publishing content that is tailored to get the most out of the given platform has the potential to deliver multiples of the expected impact. This is about having your agency, and your marketers understand the potential, and the constraints, of the platform on which you’re placing content. Get that wrong and you may as well sit on the toilet ripping up €50 notes, throwing the shreds between your legs.

But I’m not a marketer, I’m a journalist. Right?

Platform consciousness is as crucial for journalists as it is for advertisers. Not all content is suitable for all formats. Where, say, video is shoe-horned into a page thoughtlessly, it fails to have the desired effect. Where a longer article is copied from a blog to newspaper site without the links, it is weakened. On both fronts, journalism and advertising, the ones who understand the relationship between platform and content will win the battle for eyeballs. This isn’t knowledge confined to the web-native hipster ‘generetion Meh’, either – the old guard are catching on.

I gave a presentation to Metro International’s annual gathering of editors last week and we discussed the importance of knowing your platforms, knowing your readers and their behaviours, and knowing what to put where, and when. During that talk, we discussed how the Financial Times are going digital-first. More than simply promoting digital, the FT boss Lionel Barber is beginning to realise that you have to look at each piece of content and wonder where it is appropriate to post it, and that may not be in the pink paper, straight off. A few select quotes from Lionel’s email to staff set the tone for the paper’s new direction:

We need to become content editors rather than page editors.

We must rethink how we publish our content, when and in what form, whether conventional news, blogs, video or social media.

We need to ensure that we are serving a digital platform first, and a newspaper second

The New York Times are clearly doing something similar, although Jill Abramson’s memo was a little more person-focused and a lot more vague on the details. They get that when you mix content with platform sharply, it works.

Journalism, or at least part thereof, finally realises it is in the business of content marketing, competing for attention with brands that are motivated to produce great content in huge volumes. The very advertisers that used to subsidise journalism have decided that traditional advertising has a limited potential for engagement, so they’re creating the editorial themselves and hanging their product loosely on it. Content is king. Red Bull know this, which is how a fizzy drink has become a global media brand. Independent beer-peddlers (with a £20m turnover) Brew Dog know this. One of their biggest brand recognition wins was to blow a conversation about a Diageo-controlled prize wide open, positioning them as the dog biting at Diageo’s hefty ankles. Now, their boss has said that he would ‘rather take my money and set fire to it’ than invest in traditional advertising, so they’re putting together a TV show about craft beer.

And that brings us neatly back to Guinness. I’m not about to claim that one of the world’s best-known brands don’t know what they’re doing. The people behind the black stuff clearly understand the black magic of advertising, and the crowd behind the cloud have a full trophy locker. But everyone makes mistakes. Their pretty cloud and its poor fit with the platform shows that the ground under our feet is constantly shifting. As you dance from platform to platform, you must be sure your content is content in its surroundings.